WASHINGTON -- By 2018, Ukrainian brigades will be better equipped to face separatists in the Donbass region after rotating through a combat training center in western Ukraine that the California National Guard helped to establish.
Col. Nick Ducich, who serves as commander of the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is part of the California National Guard, was instrumental in helping the Ukrainian military build the combat training center. He began formulating the idea for the center back in November 2015, when he was beginning a 14-month deployment to the region.
Ducich met June 7 with reporters in the Pentagon to discuss operations in Ukraine during his deployment. He relayed that he took 54 Soldiers from the California National Guard with him to the Ukraine, which has had a partnership with the California National Guard for more than 24 years as part of the National Guard State Partnership Program.
Ducich explained that the new combat training center is co-located with the existing International Peacekeeping and Security Center (IPSC) in Yavoriv, near the country's border with Poland. The IPSC already hosts the Rapid Trident exercise each year and so is used to the demands of a training center, Ducich said.
"It's a pretty immense training area, so the foundation was there," Ducich said.
At the IPSC, he said, efforts focused on the training and mentoring of newly assigned personnel, including Ukrainian staff, instructors, and observer-controller trainers, and the soldier participants. The effort was part of an ongoing effort to help Ukrainian forces to achieve defense reform as well as full interoperability with NATO by 2020.
The IPSC added infrastructure such as a site for dedicated to training for military operations in simulated urbanized terrain. Staff instituted "effective range control for terrain management, safety procedures and remediation of unexploded ordnance, among other requirements," Ducich said. These additions "elevated the efficiency and effectiveness of the training area."
During his time in the Ukraine, Ducich reported that he saw five battalions of soldiers from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense rotating through the training center, with each unit on 55-day rotations. Those battalions had previously been fighting separatist forces to regain full control of the Donbass, a heavily populated region that makes up the eastern half of Ukraine.
"These rotations consisted of individual and collective training requirements, emphasizing leader development, team building, and combat arms synchronization, to reflect the necessary interoperability defense reforms," Ducich explained.
"The individual training included marksmanship, movement techniques, communications, and medical combat care," he continued. "The collective training began with pairs, elevating through squad, platoon, company and finally battalion-level events, highlighting defensive operations."
After their training rotations, the Ukrainian units returned to fighting. Ducich said some of the soldiers from each rotation were interviewed within 60 to 90 days after their rotations regarding the effectiveness of their training they received at the center.
"From that, we also learned what the newest techniques that the enemy was using, to try to see how we could adjust the training," Ducich said. "So we were a learning, adaptive organization, within ourselves, of taking that flow of combat scenarios and actualities from the Donbass and incorporating them into the training plan within the 55-day construct."
Those lessons learned helped refine the focus at the training center to implement enhancements in training for large-scale movement, gunnery, indirect fires, and integration of weapons systems such as air defense capabilities.
The new combat training center is in its infancy, according to Ducich, and there's still a lot to accomplish. Right now there are only battalions rotating through the training center, but he hopes that brigade-sized elements will be able to rotate through by 2018.
Ducich said that from what he has seen, he thinks the Ukrainian ground forces are doing remarkably well.
"At brigade level, they are outstanding," he said. "They have been able to hold the line and begin the integration of the new weapons systems and rectify some of the logistical shortfalls that those brigades went to the Donbass with. I see the Ukrainian armed forces getting only stronger each day, whether it be logistically, or in their defensive posture, and in their capabilities."
Ducich said the Ukrainian army had suffered from more than 20 years of "neglect" in terms of funding, but the country is now mobilizing its defense industry, ramping up new capabilities, and focusing on both officer and NCO development.
"So they are playing catch-up while engaged in conflict at the same time," he said. "So I have a lot of patience for where they are right now. They are getting stronger every day. They had so many obstacles they had to overcome, on top of engaging an enemy in their own backyard."